PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — This was always going to be a challenging year for Jordan Spieth, and not just on the golf course.
Spieth knew it would be tough to repeat the results of a year in which he won the Masters and U.S. Open, chased a Grand Slam and won the FedEx Cup to cash in on the most lucrative season ($22 million) in golf. And he knew there would be scrutiny over every round, even before the majors began.
That’s not unusual. Rory McIlroy faced it two years ago. Tiger Woods dealt with it his entire career.
What makes Spieth’s fish bowl feel even smaller is the attention from the public.
His appeal was undeniable at the Valspar Championship. Whether it was Friday afternoon or Saturday morning, fans had a tough time getting a clear view of Spieth because the crowd was so big. That has never happened at Innisbrook in its 16 years on the PGA Tour schedule.
Under Armour, his clothing sponsor, sold various shirts in the clubhouse, some with a silhouette of Spieth, others with only his last name in block letters. They were easy to see in the gallery because there were a lot of them.
As the defending champion, his image was on a large sign that hung from the back of the grandstands on the opening tee. Late in the afternoon on Saturday, a woman climbed to the top of the bleachers and reached down over the sign so that her arms cradled the image of Spieth’s face as a friend took her picture.
Most interesting was a 75-yard walk after the pro-am through a corridor of fans packed two-deep behind the ropes, screaming and reaching for autographs. Spieth had his caddie, Michael Greller, walk in front of him and collect items for him to sign, avoiding the obvious collectors in it for the money. It was strange to hear the fans yelling out, “Michael, Michael, over here,” instead of Spieth’s name. But it was a smart move.
It’s been like that all year, from Kapalua to Pebble Beach, from Los Angeles to Florida.
That’s what happens to the No. 1 player in the world, especially a player so young (22). And it doesn’t hurt to be an American.
Is he filling the void of Woods? Not even close. Spieth, McIlroy and Rickie Fowler combined couldn’t set off the frenzy that followed Woods through the inaugural phase of Tigermania in 1997 and still does even as injuries have kept him from playing.
Whether the public attention has a bearing on Spieth’s golf, only he would know. But it’s on his mind.
That much was clear after he played an 18-hole practice round at Pebble Beach last month with a group of fans following him for four hours. Spieth was asked that day if he felt he had a target on his back because of his two majors and No. 1 ranking. He spoke more about the fans than the players trying to beat him.
“Things have changed,” he said. “I still find myself struggling with what’s the right thing to do. Oftentimes I come off the course and I hit it poorly that day. And it’s a frustrating feeling trying to look for answers, knowing you need to go work on it, and then you’ve got all the people asking for something. And if you don’t do it, they give you a bad rap. On the other side, how great is it to have fans? How great is it to be able to influence people in a positive way? Why wouldn’t you want to flip that switch?
“I’m trying to do a better job this year of putting a smile on my face and showing who I think I really am,” he said. “I have a light sense of humor. A lot of times on the golf course, I’m intense. I’m trying to flip the switch more while remaining as competitive as possible.”
The moment Spieth regretted from Innisbrook was having enough spare time to look at social media.
Two-time Bay Hill winner Matt Every said so aptly last year, “There’s nothing social about social media.” Spieth was reminded of that when someone posted to his Instagram account that his wedge game was garbage. Far more innocent was a tweet from the PGA Tour account that quoted one comment from Spieth that was out of context, though it was no less irritating.
His mistake was responding to both of them.
“I should never respond to any of that. Just let it go and by the time the next tournament rolls around, no one even remembers it anyway,” Spieth said. “There’s going to be plenty of people that don’t like the way I play the game or handle things. I’ve got to be confident in what I’m doing and know that many more do appreciate it.”
Spieth isn’t as consumed with social media as other players from his generation. Still, he spoke at the start of the year about trying to “quiet the noise” of the comments posted to his account. Those will always be there no matter how he plays.